Waking up on Saturday morning to the sad news that the former England cricketer Basil D’Oliveira had died bought back a raft of memories of the great man. Not only was ‘Dolly’ a terrific batsmen and more than useful bowler he was a catalyst in bringing about the downfall of the hideous apartheid regime in his country of birth, South Africa. As a nine year old following his first Ashes series in 1968 I was entranced by a fabulous innings of 158 by D’Oliveira that paved the way for a famous England victory in the final test at the Oval. The man was a hero to a nation.
What happened next caused so much outrage that the winter tour to South Africa was cancelled. It became known as the D’Oliveira affair. Incredibly and much to their shame the MCC (who ran the national team at the time) excluded D’Oliveira from the England touring party – clearly to appease the the South African minority white government. You see our sporting hero was black, or as the South Africans classified him, ‘cape coloured’ and not allowed to play first class cricket on the same field as his ‘white’ counterparts. D’Oliveira’s inclusion would have caused many problems to the regime.
In the end D’Oliveira was eventually selected as Somerset bowler Tom Cartwright withdrew from injury but as suspected the South Africans would not accept the touring party and the tour was cancelled. Test match cricket would not be played again by South Africa for more than two decades and the sporting boycott gained momentum which lead to their exile from the global sporting stage.
It was a massive issue at the time and in a week when racism in sport has been in the spotlight the D’Oliveira affair highlighted exactly what was going on in South Africa. It certainly engaged my curiosity and I’m pretty certain it shaped my own thinking. It was fascinating to hear Pat Murphy and Peter Hain paying tribute to D’Oliveira and how he handled everything with such dignity. He continued to play for England until 1972 and his county, Worcestershire until he was nearly fifty.
‘Not Cricket : The Basil D’Oliveira Conspiracy’ is a fantastic documentary initially broadcast in 2008 on BBC4 directed by Paul Yule and goes into great detail about the establishment’s betrayal of Basil D’Oliveira and includes exclusive interviews with D’Oliveira himself. Hopefully it will get a repeat soon. A raft of wonderful tributes have been written since Saturday, this one by Vic Marks of the Guardian is as good as any.